Academic Programs Quantitative Methods for Public Policy Macalester College

About the Program

The Original Proposal


What is quantitative literacy? How do you teach it? How do you measure it? How can you develop a program that will ensure that all undergraduates have it by the time they graduate? During the academic year 2001­02, faculty from Macalester College wrestled with these questions and found answers. These have led to a pilot program, Quantitative Methods for Public Policy (QM4PP), that is currently running at Macalester with funding from the Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education and the National Science Foundation's Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Instruction program.

The QM4PP program is interdisciplinary. It involves courses from the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. It is also cohesive. The focus is on public policy, and all courses use the same policy issue as a source of illustrations and applications. All students from all of the participating courses come together one evening per week to hear experts debate the policy issue and to talk about their own use of quantitative methods in analyzing options. The policy topic changes on a regular basis. While a core of courses participate each year, there are departments that participate only when the topic is particularly relevant. This is a mechanism for drawing in a variety of less quantitative departments.

Viewing quantitative methods through the lens of policy analysis is a strong motivator for students, especially those who are "math averse," demonstrating the power of quantitative methods in a context they recognize as important.

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Program History

Macalester College has no graduation requirement in mathematics. While close to 75% of our students do take some mathematics; many of the remaining students intentionally avoid any courses that are at all quantitative. Sizeable numbers of our students graduate without the basic understanding of hypothesis testing, correlation, rates of change, or discounting that would enable them to be critical readers of the popular press. For a campus that prides itself on civic engagement and the examination of political issues, this had become a matter of concern to many of the faculty.

The inability to critique quantitative arguments was recognized as a problem not just for the students who had avoided mathematics. It was clear that all our students, even mathematics and economics majors, would benefit from a program that directly addressed quantitative literacy.

During 2001­02, fifteen faculty from across the college, but representing mostly the sciences and social sciences, met every other week to create a program that would address this problem. Some of the criteria that emerged from the first meetings were that our program would have to be

  • Interdisciplinary, involving many different departments,
  • Well structured and focused. We were not interested in a program that only gave a "quantitative" designation to an assortment of courses,
  • Built on existing courses. In a small college there is little flexibility to create permanent new courses, and what flexibility exists is jealousy guarded by each department,
  • Tied to Macalester's traditional emphasis on civic engagement and interest in public affairs.

It was decided that each year we would select an important issue which could be used as a source of examples of quantitative methods used in public policy debate and as a unifying theme for all participating courses.

We also sought to provide all students with a survey of the fundamental quantitative ideas that arise regularly in public debate. These were grouped into three broad categories:

  • Chance: statistical hypothesis testing, sampling, experimental design, measures of correlation.
  • Change: percentages and rates; marginal versus average rates; linear versus exponential growth; importance of units; estimation.
  • Trade-offs: cost/benefit and cost/effectiveness analysis; other mathematical techniques for comparison.

An early proposal was to require all participating courses to spend some time on each of these topics. The problem was that we were using existing courses that already had full syllabi. There was little flexibility to add the remaining topics that were not traditional.

The solution was to create an evening time when all students from all participating courses come together. It can be thought of as a common laboratory section for all participating courses. Some of the evenings are devoted to introduction of quantitative tools in the context of the public policy issue. Other evenings provide background in the policy issue or bring in speakers who can address the issues and illustrate how quantitative tools are used to bolster their own arguments.

The first year of the program was 2002­03. The policy topic was the school voucher debate. Six departments participated: Communication Studies (introductory journalism), Economics (principles of economics), English (college writing), Geography (methods of geography), Mathematics (introductory statistics, discrete mathematics), and Political Science (empirical research methods). Some did so on a voluntary basis: encouraging but not requiring their students to attend the evening class. One hundred students enrolled in the evening class in the fall, seventy in the spring.

In the second year, 2003­04, the focus is on immigration policy. Only four departments are participating, but all now require their students to attend the evening class: Economics (principles of economics), Geography (urban geography), Mathematics (introductory statistics), and Political Science (economics and the law).

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Program goals and learning objectives

The purpose of this program is to give students an appreciation for the role of quantitative methods in deciding questions of public importance as well as the ability to think critically about quantitative arguments made by others. These issues are not addressed in any other courses, and so our intention is to make participation in this program a graduation requirement. No other course in mathematics or any other department would satisfy this requirement.

The evening class does not attempt to teach how to measure a correlation or calculate a net present value. When a quantitative technique is taught, that is done within the participating course. The evening class is designed to acquaint students with the concepts and vocabulary of quantitative analysis. Its purpose is to help students learn how to critique a position paper that relies on quantitative analysis.

The QM4PP program as a whole has three broad goals:

1. Introduce all students to basic methods of quantitative analysis in a context that illustrates usefulness in thinking about issues of public importance,

2. Enable students to think critically about quantitative arguments that are presented in defense of a position on an issue of public importance,

3. Assist faculty from all disciplines to understand the relevance of quantitative methods to their own scholarship, and enable them to make connections to quantitative methods in their classes.

The first goal is quantitative literacy in the broad sense. We want our students to see and appreciate its usefulness. The public policy piece is an important part of the program. It receives as much attention as the quantitative topics in terms of choosing speakers, presenting the issues, and engaging students in wrestling with the questions that arise in the policy topic. What is unique about our program is that the quantitative literacy is embedded within this policy debate.

The second goal gets to the heart of this program. We want our students to learn how to critique a statement made in a newspaper or by a proponent of a particular position. We want them to know the basic terminology, the kinds of questions to ask when judging the validity of an argument based on numbers, and where they can turn for deeper explanations. These skills are important for all students, even those in traditionally quantitative majors. It is because of the centrality of this second goal that students are not able to satisfy this requirement with any other course in mathematics or any other quantitative subject.

The third goal is unusual among quantitative literacy programs, but it is an important part of how we see QM4PP and itsr mission within the college. Quantitative literacy is not just a goal for the students. Appreciation for and a reasonable level of comfort with quantitative tools are aspects of quantitative literacy that we would like to pervade all of our campus. Our program is designed specifically to encourage and support participation by faculty who normally would not teach courses with a quantitative component. The intention is to foster community-wide appreciation of the power and pitfalls of arguments that call on numbers.

There are two important aspects of the program that were made possible by the funding from the Department of Education. The first is an annual workshop built around the policy topic for the following year and designed to acquaint a broad range of faculty with how quantitative methods come into play in thinking about this issue. The second consists of support personnel who are available to help quantitatively literate faculty tie their courses to the policy topic, and to help non-quantitative faculty who are interested in the topic to see how they can bring quantitative ideas into their own syllabi. There are two faculty providing this support. One is a faculty member who is released one from one course each year specifically for this purpose. The other is someone hired with the title of "Policy Associate." He teaches one of the participating classes each semester and the remainder of his time is devoted to supporting other faculty engaged in the program.

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Student placement into the program

At the time this article is being written, we are in the second year (2003­04) of the piloting of the program. Ten classes are participating this year. Each requires its students to attend the Wednesday evening classes and to participate in the program. Many of these classes are part of multi-section courses. For this year, students have some choice of whether to enroll in a section that participates in the program or one that does not.

Our intention is to make enrollment in at least one participating QM4PP class a graduation requirement for all Macalester students, and one that cannot be satisfied by any other courses. We hope that this requirement will be in place by the summer of 2006.

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Program details

We are still in the pilot phase of developing the QM4PP program, so some of the program details may be changed or modified in the future. But having run it for over a year, we now have a fairly good idea of its structure. For 2003­04, the focus is on immigration policy, and the title for this year is Policies Affecting the Immigrant Experience in Minnesota. Because immigration policy is such a rich topic, we expect to continue to explore questions related to immigration in 2004­05. In addition to the departments that are participating this year, American Studies, Anthropology, English, History, Psychology, and Spanish all teach courses that deal with immigrant issues. We hope to be able to entice some of them into the second year of focus on immigration.

The workshops

Preliminary planning for the coming academic year begins with a two-day workshop in late January. This is an opportunity to assess the progress of the current year's program and make adjustments before we run it a second time in the spring semester. It also is intended to identify faculty preferences for the questions and choice of emphasis for the following year. It is at this workshop that we seek commitments from faculty for engagement in the QM4PP program the following year. Those who are participating for the first time receive a $2500 stipend over the summer for the additional work required to adapt their class so that it takes full advantage of the program.

The primary planning workshop runs for three days and is held in early summer. We bring in potential speakers for the coming year as well as other experts in the field. The structure of these workshops has been to spend two days learning about the policy questions. The first day is devoted to establishing a broad understanding of the topic. The second day focuses on questions that have a strong quantitative component. These might include work that raises questions about experimental design and hypothesis testing or analysis of economic costs and benefits. We also bring in people who can discuss relevant databases and talk about how to access and use them.

At this stage, we are working with local experts. Our close association with the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota is particularly helpful. Their faculty have provided some of the expertise and have helped to identify others in government, academe, and the non-profit sector who can illuminate the issues and show how quantitative methods actually are used.

The third day is the real workday. This is when we sketch out the sequence of topics for the coming fall. We determine the questions that will be the primary focus of the coming year, the speakers we wish to invite, the quantitative questions that we will choose to highlight. Most of the speakers that we will ask to address our students are local experts, but we also try to identify one or two individuals who are nationally recognized for their work on the policy issue.

Our workshops have benefited from the presence of interested faculty from other colleges and universities as well as high school teachers. These have been faculty who have been interested in learning about our program and searching for ideas that they can carry back to their own institutions. Currently, while our program has federal funding, we are able to pay the costs of participation for these individuals as part of our outreach and dissemination. Our intention is that as our program gains in expertise and experience, the outreach and dissemination piece of these workshops will grow, possibly paying for itself or attracting additional funding.

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>The evening class

All students in all participating classes are required to register for the common evening class, held Wednesday evenings from 7:00 to 8:30 PM. Students who have previously taken the evening class are exempt from registering for it, but their instructor in the participating class may still require their attendance for particular evenings. The common evening class carries 1 credit (1/4 of a normal class's credit). Students receive a pass/fail grade for it.

One faculty member is in charge of the evening class, but there is almost always a different person who does the presentation. Often there will be team of two faculty that presents the evening's topic. The topics are split roughly in half between those that are primarily quantitative and those that focus on the policy question.

We have thirteen Wednesday evening classes in the fall semester. The schedule for fall, 2003 is representative of how the semester is organized.

QM4PP syllabus for fall, 2003

September 3 Introduction to course, introduction to issues of migration

September 10 pre-test assessment, guest speaker on US immigration laws: Gatekeeping Nation: U.S. Immigration Policy in Historical and Contemporary Perspectives

September 17 rates of growth, average vs. marginal rates

September 24 trade-offs

October 1 guest speaker on economic impact of immigration: Estimating the economic impact of immigration: how and why to do it

October 8 guest speaker on reasons for more restrictive immigration policies

October 15 sampling and hypothesis testing. Give out articles for individual critiquing (major group project for course assessment)

October 22 (before fall break)

October 29 what to look for when critiquing the quantitative components of articles and opinion pieces. Groups begin to build common critique of assigned article

November 5 correlation and causation

November 12 detection

November 19 polling issues, web sites with data, information, and opinions

November 26 (before Thanksgiving)

December 3 Cost Benefit Analysis and net present value/discount rates

December 10 faculty debate

December 17 final assessment

Macalester College prides itself on its small classes. Classes of over thirty students are unusual. In contrast, the common evening class is now running with close to 200, and eventually should reach over 300 students. The first part of each evening is devoted to a presentation of the topic, which can take as much as 45 minutes. To foster interaction among the students and to provide some sense of individualized instruction, the students then break into groups of approximately six students each. The groups are created to include students from as many different classes as possible. Here the students work on activities that allow them to explore the ideas they have just seen and to help cement their understanding of the topic from the previous week. Faculty from the participating classes circulate to answer questions. We also plan on developing a cadre of undergraduate preceptors with experience in the program who can assist and help guide the individual groups.

Each group is also given a semester-long project to complete. For the 2003­04 year, this consists of an in-depth critique of a controversial position paper or journal article.

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Program assessment

We have retained a professional consultant for assessment. In addition, a Macalester faculty member is responsible for the actual assessment that takes place on campus.

Since the focus of our program is to be able to critique statements made by others, that is also the primary focus of our assessment. At the beginning of each semester, the students in the program are given newspaper articles, randomly assigned, which they are asked to critique. At the end of the semester, as part of their final examination, these same articles are included in a slightly larger set, and the articles are again randomly distributed. Students are asked to critique two of the articles.

In addition, focus groups and interviews with individual students are held near the end of the semester or during the following semester to gather information on student perceptions of what they learned, the value of the experience, and improvements that could be made. Our assessment also includes a piece of a larger study being conducted in preparation for our next accreditation review. Fifteen members of the class of 2007 have been selected for a longitudinal study of their development. Each semester, each student is interviewed individually. The study explores impressions of and attitudes toward the undergraduate experience, including the student's own sense of personal development.

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Cross-disciplinary commitment and participation

The foundations of this program lie in the departments of Mathematics and Economics. This has built on a tradition of strong cooperation between these departments. The faculty of both departments see the need for this program and have been willing to participate. In addition, the chairs of the departments of Geography and Political Science have supported the development of this program and have ensured that their departments participate. We have also had participation from individuals in Communication Studies (Introduction to Journalism) and English (one section of College Writing).

Other departments with an interest in the policy issues we have studied have participated in the planning workshops or assisted with evening presentations. These include the departments of Anthropology, Dramatic Arts and Dance, Education, History, Psychology, Sociology, and Spanish.

Our greatest obstacle so far has been the reluctance of many departments to require the additional component of the evening course while it is still unproven. Until the program has run long enough that it has established a reputation for being useful and interesting, departments that attract math-averse students will be reluctant to require it.

On the other hand, we have received nothing but good will from all members of the faculty. We have been careful not to convey the impression that quantitative methods are the only or the principal foundation for policy decision-making. Even those faculty members who are themselves math-averse recognize the value of what we are doing.

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Outreach and Dissemination

Because our program is funded by the US Department of Education and the National Science Foundation, outreach and dissemination are important responsibilities. While it is not clear whether any other institution could import our program as it stands, we do hope that our unique approach may provide a model and inspiration that others can adapt to their individual needs, drawing on the materials that we are developing to teach quantitative literacy in the context of a focused question of national importance.

Our website,, contains links to Power Point slides from the evening presentations, worksheets, and other materials from the evening class.

Faculty from other colleges and universities are welcome to attend the planning workshops as either observers or participants. Until the summer of 2006, we have funding to help underwrite the cost of attending these workshops. We also have a few small subgrants to give out under our NSF-CCLI grant. These can be used to pay an individual who will spend time learning about our program, looking for how it might be shaped to fit the needs of another institution, and possibly writing a grant proposal to NSF for Adaptation and Implementation.

Another important piece of our outreach is to secondary teachers, especially secondary teachers in the social sciences. They also will be involved in the summer planning workshops, with an additional day devoted to their particular needs, showing them how they can bring an awareness of quantitative literacy and its role in understanding important public issues into their own classes.

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Contact information

The website for this project is at

Project director: David Bressoud,

Associate director: Danny Kaplan,

Policy Associate: Steve Holland,

Evening class and assessment coordinator: Dave Ehren,

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